As a high school and adjunct theology teacher for 15 years, my teaching philosophy is constantly changing because the question remains: How do I best empower my students to become better human beings and better theologians, while at the same time becoming a better “brother’s/sister’s keeper” myself? As this year is about to begin, and I reflect on my past years as a teacher and what I can help my students be better at, I think my goal is going to be simple. I want us to learn to play more. That may not go over well with administration as a professional goal, but stay with me here before you call my school asking why you are paying to let a teacher allow seniors to play in high school. Play can be a part of an active component in dialogue and a meaningful avenue for dynamic interaction in critical thinking though empathy and self-reflection. It can also be an active bodily component, which is valuable and I surely will employ, but the purpose of this article is to make the argument that there needs to be more play in verbal dialogue with each other. This ability, to allow ourselves to play, frees us to creatively realize we are always becoming. I say “we,” because I believe both teachers and students should learn to play more as it is a dialectic relationship. My approach to education has always embraced the idea that a teacher, no matter the level, should always learn from his or her students. This liminal space of being both a teacher and a student allows my students to do likewise, and that is important because they will soon be unleashed out into the world, and they need to know that it does not always have to be either/or. Sometimes it can be both/and. I feel proud as I kick them out of my nest every May, but I also feel guilty that I did not allow them to just be kids. For Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” There are several interpretations of this passage, but I would suggest that one interpretation is that Jesus wants us to play more and be creative and worry free. I believe this can be done through an open dialogue.
I am only successful as a teacher if my students learn how to apply the knowledge gained in my class to their own lives and the lives of those they encounter. However, I am realizing that by the time they get to me, they have lost the ability to allow themselves to play, verbally or otherwise. I feel this is a huge problem, and many studies have shown this to be true. The top down lecture method, where students are just receptacles of information, has proven time and time again to not work as the sole teaching method. I believe in a holistic approach. It is neither a top down method nor a bottom up method. It is a dialogue of knowledge of exchange, a type of play if you will. It is an important intellectual game and creative work that the teacher and student are playing together. “For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”
What is “complete” being? How do I help my students achieve this or at least realize it is a possibility? Is it possible to transcend to completeness in the Divine, in a play of transformation through action and self-reflection, and go as far as we can play the game? Can the hermeneutics of play, using Hans-Georg Gadamer as a guide, help one self-reflect and come to a movement of discernment about God? Under what context of being do we, as Christians, measure the effectiveness of our consciousness concerning our relationship to God within as Presence? The process proposed in this article may lead us toward a more inclusive self-discernment of the Divine Presence, and I believe discernment cannot exist without self-reflection, which is a type of play in and of itself. Therefore, a type of genuine discernment coexists in self-reflection and, when applied, brings a deeper understanding of one’s spiritual quest. My postulate may be a daunting one, and I may lose this game, because it is like trying to catch a beach ball with a baseball mitt. The ball thrown from God can come from any direction. And, all the other players come with their own size mitts and preconceived notions of who should be playing where on the field. Some have cleats to get a better grip, but the determination regarding how much each player is willing to extend himself or herself determines how much they attain by just playing the game. The interaction itself is guided according to each player’s understanding of the rules. However, I personally can only catch what I believe to be real through dialogue with my reason, knowledge, and truth. This is done through my own self-reflection in my ongoing search for being one with the Presence, which for me is the Trinitarian God the Father, through Jesus the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. I understand the risk I am taking in trying to deconstruct, transform, and finally apply the type of self-reflection that leads ultimately to discernment. The invitation to play may hold the potential to experience a transcendence of the Divine, and that attempt at artistic liberty, implied in the notion of being playful, can end sublimely or not.
Is spiritual growth a process initiated by our own sense of self-awareness or is it done in a well-structured environment through the stimulation of others? Questioning both being-itself and being-in-God (or God-in-me) is part of the human experience. Suspicion is as well. And believe me, my students are plenty suspicious. Just try making a definitive statement in theology class and you will hear a student in the background asking Siri or Google if it is true. I welcome the challenge! I start off my courses by tackling the big questions first. You know, the ones that hurt your head and make you question everything. Both suspicion and questioning can lend one to a formulation of truth through action, theory, and practice in a circular motion or, as Gadamer argues, a back and forth motion like throwing a ball. It is in this liminal space where I feel the most learning and growth occurs within my students and those who chose to play the game. Therefore, using a hermeneutics of suspicion, I throw my epistemological ball at Gadamer’s ontology of hermeneutics, which in turn becomes a game in metaphysics with the following players: the nature of being, existence, and reality verses my team of methods, scope, and validity. You may be the judge of who wins because Gadamer’s balls keep changing.
There is a distinction between episteme and doxa, knowledge and opinion, truth and belief. Sometimes my students come to me not knowing the difference. Just because one believes it to be true, does not make it true. To use CNN’s overly simplistic example, “a banana will never be an apple” no matter how many times someone tells me it is one. Therefore, let us delve into hermeneutics headfirst, challenging my understanding of understanding. I throw my glove up in the air to catch one tiny ball— simply the word: interpretation. My hermeneutical process is how I came to play in “Gadamer’s ‘Game.’” I figure the best I can do is drag my students into the game as well. So, let’s play.
There exists openness on the field of Gadamer’s concepts regardless of how much any player is convinced he or she knows or does not know. I challenge my students to be open to ideas, feelings, and different cultures, and beliefs in every class. However, some days when I walk in the classroom I feel a bit like Socrates when he said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” The statement alone demonstrates knowing, but the question remains: What do I know? It is my goal as a teacher to let my students learn through play, that they know more than they think they know. It is within everyone’s cognitive will and being to interpret knowledge. An example I use in my classroom to promote the discussion of proving the nature of knowledge and being is: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Such a philosophical thought experiment raises questions about observation and perception. It depends on how one defines sound. Therefore, if it depends on how one defines it, then I am determined to play on with the question: What is the nature of Being as it applies to play?
Hermeneutics is an activity or philosophy that describes any effort at understanding written or verbal communications by establishing a process for interpretation. Every act of seeing the world is caught up or developed in a certain historical context, which is continually open to change. One of the key concepts of hermeneutics is the “fusion of horizons,” which transforms your understanding with another’s. You are forever changed. One cannot undo what has already taken place, no matter the measure of difficulty. In this respect we are always changing. In my World Religions courses, I use the analogy of a river to demonstrate the Hindu and Buddhist concept of transitoriness, with the only permanent thing being the end of the finite. The fusion of horizons rejects objectivism and absolute knowledge. I have a horizon that expands, that I can see beyond, and which points toward something more. A horizon marks the line of sight at any given moment. It is not difficult in terms of limitations. All I must do is walk a short distance; from there I can now see beyond my previous horizon. From my experience, I can anticipate what is beyond my horizon. Horizons limit what I know at a particular time, but I can always move beyond it because I know that there is something beyond. It is not a limit of meaning but rather draws me toward the larger context that provides meaning. My horizon changes as my perception changes. Gadamer is indebted to philosopher Edmund Husserl for this concept, but Husserl uses it in terms of language or dialogue. Language is also a tool through its purposefulness and applicability. Words are concepts of which our thoughts take place. This leads to a deeper relationship with God. Therefore, if God gave us the ability to play and develop a more advanced version of it than other animals, then why not run with the metaphoric ball? The fusion of horizons is important in the process of spiritual discernment because one should always be in dialogue with God, however since God is beyond our possible comprehension, we must also be in dialogue with others, ourselves, and our own understanding of our sense of being. It is a constant play of words, notions, thoughts, understanding, and actual physical movement that helps us understand better, not sitting statically in a desk being lectured at.
For Martin Heidegger, Being comprised an understanding of the “ground” or “background” coming before all conditions, thus allowing knowing to occur. But what exists before human knowledge? An important part of hermeneutic circle is preexisting interpretations that make other interpretations possible. There needs to be a sense of the world before one can make judgments upon it. The conceptualization, or playing of the game, needs to occur before one even picks up a glove. Humans are not tabula rasas (blank slates). People form practical involvements in the world through activities and different forms of socialization; play being one of those activities. Even the culture one is born into allows one to inherit a worldview and perspective of the world. Therefore, behind me and under my feet there is always a background understanding that is subconsciously implicit and unstated. This background understanding is constantly at play and working in tandem with foreground understanding (everything open to reflection, interpretation, and judgment). I must learn what my students’ backgrounds are in order to engage them and move further into the game of understanding being, which includes their relationship and role in this game of life.
Heidegger’s concept of knowing is the truth of concealment and un-concealment. For the revealing of something is dependent upon something else being concealed. Seeing something in a certain way also means not seeing it in another way. For example, once I tasted bacon flavored ice-cream I could never go back to the truth that I did not know what bacon flavored ice-cream tasted like, or better yet, that it even existed. Truth is the un-concealment that allows these things to appear. There is a type of play exchanged between concealment and un-concealment. This is where liminal theology is important, because the concept remains, for the most part, hidden and are never capable of complete revelation. Much of religious revelation through Tradition, Scripture, and experience (which Heidegger and Gadamer do not really address) is both applicable and practical within the context of self-reflection. For both Heidegger and Gadamer, revelation, and our interpretation of it, is always changing. As we process discernment—we are open to an awareness of a paradigm of continuum (we are always reinterpreting as the world changes). We are always interpreting because we are always engaged in doing or acting in the world, therefore we possess a fundamental relationship that is both engaging and practical.
I was never big on the belief that “one should be in the world, but not of the world” based on John 15 and 17. It puts one in a state of dualism suggesting you can be either/or. I would suggest instead that one should run headfirst into the world with the guidance of God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, and serving like Jesus the Christ. Jesus gave the ultimate gift of himself. I ask my students every year, and every year only one or two raise their hands (out of about 300) indicating that they would be willing to die for their faith. I do not expect my students to purport something they are not. Self-preservation is a part of the human and animal condition. However, we could learn something from John the Baptist, “He must increase; I must decrease.” It is not a total denial of self, but rather a form of humility, which involves an openness to learning and formation, willingness to change, living in God’s grace, and dedication to servant hood. Most teenagers often struggle with this concept. The stereotype that they think they know everything and are invincible is just a facade made up of factors that are chemical, experiential, and cultural. Much of that facade has to do with their upbringing. Still, students want to be treated with the same respect adults possess while still being able to act like children. I say, let them. If they want to play the game, then they must be willing to accept the consequences because they can no longer feign ignorance in how the game is played, although some try. My students are at a precipice in their lives and are still discovering themselves. We should let them. The idea of self is constantly changing, however self-hood (or knowledge of self) is a mode of insight into our own concrete situations defined as phronesis (practical wisdom). A Heideggerian thought to be sure, and one that Gadamer adapted in his idea of being-in-the world against and over theoretical apprehension. But it is also a keen insight into our own concrete situation (both concrete and existential), or phroneis: a mode of self-knowledge. There exist rules, which cannot be taught but applies to each situation differently. Therefore, the hermeneutical understanding as a phenomenon of human experience is contextual. My experience is an event of truth. Truth, according to Gadamer, is an event.
Play, on the other hand, has an essence that is independent of the players. Its mode of being is through the players, like the “play of light, the play of the waves, the play of gears or parts of machinery, the interplay of limbs, the play of forces, the play of gnats, even a play on words.” It is a to-and-fro movement that is not tied to a goal that will end it. It is in constant repetition. The movement is central, and it has no underlying motivation toward the subject. It makes no difference who or what the subject is, it is in the game that is played. Any teacher who allows her students to get off topic knows she might learn more than the planned lesson for that day. Teacher who allow this also know that it can get quite out of hand, and it is pure chaos with everyone running on the field and throwing balls in the air. That is usually when administration walks in. It is not just me on the baseball field alone.
There is an I-Thou relationship of intersubjectivity that Gadamer emphasizes through dialogue. In Gadamer’s 1928 article, “I and Thou,” he wrote, “[for] the concept of the human individual the ‘Thou’ is obviously of constitutive significance. The being of the person is fundamentally determined in its mode of being through the relationships in which it stands to other people.” Gadamer avoids the trappings of ego by renaming “Thou” in his later works to “Other.” He uses the Aristotelian idea of friendship, avoiding the intersubjectivity occurring between the I, the Thou, and “the Between.” There is always a community that a person is a part of either directly or indirectly. It is within this culture and language that dialogue occurs. He added in Truth and Method that tradition was a dialogical partner that we belong to as well. Tradition is also crucial as one our tools of first discovery and for teaching us what is worth knowing. Whatever tradition you bring to the table, whether it be cultural, religious, or experiential, helps form your thought, which is done through language. For Gadamer, it is in the act of understanding our own perception of knowledge with passion and creativity through a confirmation of our tradition.
For Gadamer, understanding means participating in a meaning embedded in language. Our pre-understandings and pre-judgments shape our very understanding, and they are challenged and confronted in a dialogue of question and answer. From this vantage point Gadamer admits truth becomes messy, individualistic, and is constantly changing. True learning and teaching are often a mess, with the truth just on the horizon. Hermeneutical understanding occurs as a fusion of horizons.
It is an ongoing process of understanding. Horizon here is meant in a phenomenological manner as the larger context of meaning in which the smaller or partial context is presented in a situational context and time. It always involves the formation of a new context of meaning integrating the new, strange, or uncanny. It is a dialogue of what is familiar with what is unfamiliar, and the result is change. Individually, you and I bring our own tradition and history to the table, as well as our own prejudices as our own hermeneutic situation. Our own being is continually updated in understanding and can never be completely understood within this lifetime. We are visionaries if we allow ourselves to be changed more deeply by each encounter with the other, therefore embracing the fusion of horizons. Play allows us to do just that. Play embraces the notion of expectation and joy, which can draw us deeper into the game itself (or disengage us as well). We are free to interact and are successful, according to Gadamer, when we lose ourselves in play and open ourselves to change through dialogue with the ‘Other.” The seriousness of play, in its many forms, displays a movement with no end. When we encounter the ‘Other,’ it is a continual process of allowing ourselves to be changed or transformed. This is most often done through language, since we are a communal people most dependent on a common language. Language is where we begin to understand the intelligible (or that which can be known or understood). It is also the way we think and self-reflect and with others. We see that we do not lead a conversation, but we are a conversation. To be in an “authentic conversation,” we must be open to listening and talking to the other in a manner that is inviting. To not lead or hinder the conversation, it is imperative we are open to change and ready to question our own convictions by being serious and attentive to what the other is saying. Gadamer states, “Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.” One emerges from play changed and renewed. If one enters with humility and openness, it becomes an easier metanoia, or change of heart. When one comes with the complete self, and enacts play through art, drama, language, or narrative, one is transformed through the action itself.
We are on God’s playground, God is not on ours, but God is with us while we play. We need to go into ourselves and play with finding the heart of God and play within God’s heart. It is in and through this experience of God, within this active and post-modern world, that we should enthusiastically run into the game with glove in hand. The Holy Spirit will guide us, if we allow it to. Jesus will be our example of how to play, and ultimately we are playing with God when we play well with others by emptying all selfishness and staying open to his Voice, Word, Heart, and Grace. It is a Gadamerian give and take, push and pull, and tension of balance. It is though our actions that we learn our truths. We pray to God through the grace of the Holy Spirit, asking Jesus to intercede in our favor and cheer us on whenever God throws us the ball, stretching us to our limits as we attempt to catch that transcendent ball. May God be with my students and with you as we play through this coming school year.
 Matthew 18:3 (NABRE).
J.C. Fredrich von Schiller, “Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man,” Literacy and Philosophical Essays, Vol. 32 of The Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P.F. Collier and Son Company, 1910), Letter XXVII, p. 310.
 This could lead to a discussion about what is real or not, but the focus is: if I do not believe a real ball is being thrown at me and/or I do not see it, I cannot put my mitt out in the right place to catch it unless someone else tells me where it is going to fall or I see it for myself.
 David A. Truncellito, “Epistemology,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed April 21, 2018, http://www.iep.utm.edu/epistemo/. See this article for a good explanation of epistemology to further my argument to use it to examine and question Gadamer’s ontology.
 Tom Rockmore, “Epistemology as Hermeneutics,” Monist 73, no. 2 (April 1990), accessed April 21, 2018, doi:10.5840/monist199073222.
 CNN Network, “Banana,” advertisement, CNN News Network, CNN News Network, April 4, 2018. CNN News Network uses this example to thwart Fox News and President Trump’s claim that CNN repeatedly reports “false news.” I believe the comment in the commercial tries to combat relativism as well as many other isms that are being thrown around.
 This could have made for a much shorter title of my paper until Doctor Bryan Froehle and I ‘played’ with it back and forth for the Ianonne conference.
 Jim Baggott, “Quantum Theory: If a Tree Falls in the Forest...,” OUPblog, February 14, 2011, accessed April 22, 2018, https://blog.oup.com/2011/02/quantum/. This article has an interesting take using quantum theory.
 David Vessey, “Gadamer and the Fusion of Horizons,” Chapter 2: The Telos of Dialogue as the Fusion of Horizons, accessed April 26, 2018, http://davevessey.com/Gadamer_Horizons.htm. Vessy has a good description and critique of Gadamer’s definition of the concept.
 Barthold, Lauren Swayne. “Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed April 20, 2018. http://www.iep.utm.edu/gadamer/.
 John 3:30 (NABRE).
 Jeff Malpas, “Hans-Georg Gadamer,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 03, 2003, accessed April 22, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/gadamer/.
 Ibid. (108 of 624, Kindle).
 Vessey, “Gadamer on Friendship and Intersubjectivity,” Philosophy Today 49, no. 5 (2005): 61-67, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.davevessey.com/Gadamer_friendship.htm.
 “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person,” Continental Philosophy Review, July 2000, 33, no. 3 (July 2000), accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.davevessey.com/Gadamer_friendship.htm#_ftn7.
 Andrzej Wiercinski, “Gadamer and the Truth of Hermeneutic,” Scribd, accessed April 22, 2018, https://www.scribd.com/document/79305439/Gadamer-and-the-Truth-of-Hermeneutic.
 Jeff Malpas, “Hans-Georg Gadamer,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 03, 2003, accessed April 22, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/gadamer/.
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CNN Network. “Bannana.” Advertisement. CNN News Network. CNN News Network. April 4, 2018.This is an ongoing advertisement that is still being shown today.
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One thought on “Play with Me”
Excellent! Made me really think of my teachers and how I learned in the Sixties. I hope everyone who has the opportunity to read this wonderful article can truly relate to our life .
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